Inside the head and heart of Allison Miller
Interview with Larry Murray
Mass MoCA continues to be the best jazz club in the Berkshires as it brings the sensational lesbian feminist Allison Miller, “a drummer of fierce clarity and bold imagination” (London Guardian) to North Adams. The sizzling drummer with some of the hottest new licks since Buddy RIch was here last summer with Toshi Reagon. She returns with her smoking hot band — which includes Jenny Scheinman, Myra Melford, Todd Sickafoose, Ben Goldberg, and Kirk Knuffke — for a night of propulsive rhythm and melody. Get lost in the beat with Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom! on Saturday, May 7, 2016 at 8pm, in MASS MoCA’s Club B10.
This week we had a chance to catch up with the New York City-based drummer, singer, composer, and leader of acclaimed jazz band Boom Tic Boom! Named a “Rising Star Drummer” and a “Top 20 Jazz Drummer” by jazz magazine Downbeat, she and her band have received wide acclaim for maintaining deep roots in the jazz tradition.
We wanted to know about a lot of things, but mostly how the creative process works inside a drummer’s head, and just what kind of reception she gets in the often homophobic jazz community. Some of her answers may surprise you.
I N T E R V I E W
W I T H
A L L I S O N
What is at the heart of your music?
My music is human- raw and honest. My music exists to express an emotion and I will work on strengthening that expression for the rest of my life.
Being both a lesbian and a feminist, has this helped or hindered your development as an artist?
It has definitely helped my development as an artist. It has broadened my life experience hence expanding my musical influences. It has also made me a stronger person enabling more freedom of expression. My feminism has also fueled my desire to teach and pass on the drumming tradition to young musicians. And because of my feminism and activism I have had the honor of spending time with and collaborating with incredible activist women: Toshi Reagon, Staceyann Chin, Gloria Steinem, BETTY, Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, Lisa Vogel…just to name a few.
Have their been allies along the way?
Yes. First and foremost, my parents: Jon and Ruthanna Miller. My teachers have been the biggest musical allies. Walter Salb, Michael Carvin, Lenny White, Fred Begun, Ron Kearns, Al Rublesky, Phil Fiani, and Dion Parson. Also, my band members- Myra Melford, Jenny Scheinman, Kirk Knuffke, Ben Goldberg, Todd Sickafoose. And, Toshi Reagon, Marty Ehrlich, Ben Allison, Steven Bernstein, Kenny Barron, Dr. Lonnie Smith. Actually, the list goes on and on. I would be nowhere without the support of my colleagues and mentors.
Being a strong and highly creative woman with great technique makes you a natural for jazz, even though it is often thought of as a man’s kind of music. How do you approach it?
I feel very lucky that I discovered drumming and jazz at a young age. I always knew I wanted to be a drummer and, once I heard Miles Davis’s “Miles Smiles,” I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician. There was no question. I loved the musical communication between the band members and, even as a young kid, I subconsciously knew the Miles Davis quintet was coming together creating a sum greater than it’s parts…a fleeting moment of masterful bliss captured on record.
As a youngster I never considered my gender to be a hindrance as a jazz musician. I guess it was a combination of having wonderful support from my parents, teachers and mentors and also being a tomboy.
Music is both masculine and feminine and we all exude aspects of masculinity and femininity. My favorite artists (women and men) express themselves with both yin and yang energies. Music is like Life. Life cannot exist without the feminine and masculine. So, the concept of Jazz being a man’s music doesn’t make an sense to me.
Looking ahead, what’s your hope for the future?
I hope to continue my journey as a composer and band leader. I would like to spend more time in India and Cuba studying their indigineous music. I would also like to further pursue educational outreach and spreading the good word of “Jazz” to the youth. I feel as though youngsters don’t know that Jazz is still a cutting edge music with lots of excitement and relevant content to offer. Jazz is Alive!
A B O U T
A L L I S O N
M I L L E R
Through music, Miller strives to break down the gender barriers that still exist in the “boys clubs” of jazz and percussion. After being told “You don’t play like a girl” countless times, she triumphantly told The Huffington Post, “This is what girls play like. People hear with their eyes: They see a ‘girl’ and are surprised when they hear the power and prowess that they associate with ‘boys.’ By getting onstage and throwing down while looking the way I do, I am breaking stereotypes.”
Miller is a New York City-based drummer, singer, composer, and leader of acclaimed jazz band Boom Tic Boom! Named a “Rising Star Drummer” and a “Top 20 Jazz Drummer” by jazz magazine Downbeat, she and her band have received wide acclaim for maintaining deep roots in the jazz tradition while simultaneously engaging with a diverse range of musical influences, including folk, rock, blues, and country. This eclectic mix of influences produces modern jazz peppered with melodic ballads, spunky lyrics, and Miller’s signature rhythmic force. The joyful, engaging, and deeply imaginative sound is prone to improvisation and underscored by Miller’s charismatic and playful stage presence. At MASS MoCA she is joined by violinist Scheinman, pianist Melford, bassist Sickafoose, clarinetist Goldberg, and cornetist Knuffke. A strong believer in the power of collaboration, Miller’s close connections with her bandmates harness the power of all group members’ skills and ideas, resulting in dynamic, passionate, and mesmerizing music that is filled with surprises at every turn.
Growing up near Washington, DC, Miller was inspired at age 11 by the legendary Miles Davis to play the drums and pursue a career as a jazz musician. In 1996, she moved to New York City to study with Michael Carvin and Lenny White and to begin her career as a drummer, composer, producer, and teacher. She has played on NPR Music’s Tiny Desk, and Boom Tic Boom!’s self-titled debut was named among the “Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2010” by the Los Angeles Times. The band’s 2013 release, No Morphine, No Lilies, made Downbeat and Jazz Journalists Association’s “Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2013” lists. Her latest album, Otis Was a Polar Bear, will be released by Royal Potato Family on April 8, 2016. She has collaborated with artists including Bill Frisell, Steve Bernstein, Toshi Reagon, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant, and Ani DiFranco. When not performing, Miller teaches drumming and holds master classes both in the U.S. and internationally.
Let rhythm and melody take the lead when Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom! performs in MASS MoCA’s Club B10 on Saturday, May 7, at 8pm. Dinner will be available from Lickety Split before and during the show. A full bar serves Berkshire Brewing Company beers and Berkshire Mountain Distillery spirits. Tickets are $10 for students, $16 in advance, $22 day of, and $28 preferred. Tickets for all events are available through the MASS MoCA box office located on Marshall Street in North Adams, open 11am to 5pm every day except Tuesdays through June 24, 2016. Beginning June 25, the box office is open 10am to 6pm every day, with extended evening hours to 7pm on Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 413.662.2111 x1 during box office hours or purchased online at massmoca.org. All events are held rain or shine.